12-minutes that ruined a career
Twelve minutes - that's how long the painfully awkward opening number for the 1989 Academy Awards lasted.
And that's how long it took to sink the career of producer Allan Carr, the man who made Grease and Tony award-winning musical La Cage Aux Folles, forever.
Revisiting the footage 30 years on, it's not hard to see why.
Inspired by Beach Blanket Babylon, an "outrageous musical revue" created in San Francisco, the opening number was so needlessly over-the-top it would have made even Liberace pause.
In lieu of a host, the Oscars proffered a washed-up Snow White doing her best Betty Boop impression and, um, Rob Lowe warbling over at her off-key.
The whole thing was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. Today, it is considered one of the worst, if not the worst opening number in the history of the Academy Awards.
In 2010, a clip of the opening number car crash was cut and uploaded to YouTube. It became so popular, it was watched by more than one million people in a single day.
But how did it all go so wrong? And now, 30 years later with the Oscars set to be hostless again, what lessons can we learn?
THOSE FIRST 12 MINUTES WERE BRUTAL
The idea was to pay homage to Hollywood. (When is the idea ever anything else at the Oscars?)
Snow White, dressed in her finest, shiniest costume, followed people with giant stars for faces - "Follow the Hollywood Stars!" - around the auditorium as Merv Griffin sang I've Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts as veteran actors Roy Rogers and Dorothy Lamour shuffled around him.
We're being deadly serious here. It might sound like the description of Springtime for Hitler from The Producers, but this actually happened.
And if you want to have an idea of how it went down in the room, pay attention to when the footage cuts to Snow White moving through the audience to shake hands with the Oscars guests.
Tom Hanks, his ever-charming self, gives her a shake but looks utterly perplexed. Michelle Pfeiffer, on the other hand, who was Oscar-nominated that night for Dangerous Liaisons, "was so embarrassed, she could not even give (Snow White) her hand."
IT GETS WORSE
Suddenly, a rumpled-haired Rob Lowe appeared on the stage and sidled up to Snow White. With one hand shoved in his pocket, Lowe danced out-of-time and sung out-of-breath to a parody rendition of Tina Turner's Proud Mary. (It was a huge hit in 1989, but that doesn't excuse it.)
Unsurprisingly, Snow White and Lowe did not have sizzling chemistry on stage.
"I'm a big fan of yours, Snow," Lowe intoned.
"But there's so much I'd love to know about you."
Lowe's dance moves were awkward and though Snow White gamely soldiered forward, there was something desperate and manic about actress Eileen Bowman's performance. At one point, the camera looked out into the audience at Robert Downey Jr, fighting desperately from keeping a smirk of disdain from his face.
Everything devolved from there. The tables and chairs and the aforementioned lovely bunch of coconuts joined into the dancing. A huge chorus line began high-kicking in unison to the strains of the self-congratulatory lyric "Hooray for Hollywood".
And then out walked Lily Tomlin to start the show.
"More than a billion and a half people just watched that," Tomlin said.
"And at this very moment, they're trying to make sense of it."
WHAT WENT WRONG?
In fairness to producer Carr, the opening number came together very last minute. There was just a week to rehearse and it was a nightmare to film because of the 14 different live cameras, the 100 different stage cues and the many moving pieces because of the sheer length of the thing.
"His mistake was having that first number go on for so long," Gil Cates, a 14-time Oscar producer once said.
"When you see something that doesn't work, by four minutes it's terrible, by five minutes it's outrageous, by eight minutes it's the kiss of death and by 12 minutes it's the worst thing you've ever seen in your life."
But it was a crisis of tone more than anything else. The razzle dazzle of the opening number would have worked well on a Broadway stage, but at Hollywood's brightest night it fell completely flat.
It was this same problem that plagued a second production number later in the telecast celebrating the "Stars of Tomorrow", declaring that they couldn't wait to win Oscars of their own.
It was as toe-curlingly awkward as it sounds, especially watching with hindsight knowing that none of those young hopefuls have made it back to the Oscars podium. (Though, it is fun to see a young Patrick Dempsey tap dance and sing very, very earnestly.)
WHAT WAS THE FALLOUT LIKE?
The backlash was swift and instant.
The morning after the ceremony, nobody called Carr with words of congratulation, the usual post-Oscars activity for showbiz types.
What's more, the reviews were brutal: "Hollywood Lukewarm," said The Los Angeles Times, later giving over its letters section exclusively to those who wanted to air their grievances against the show.
The New York Times wrote: "The 61st Academy Awards Ceremony began by creating the impression that there would never be a 62nd … Rob Lowe … would be well-advised to confine all future musical activities to the shower."
Lowe, for his part, instantly distanced himself from the performance, backing away from the association faster than James Franco backed away from Anne Hathaway during their abysmal 2011 Oscars hosting gig.
Speaking to The New York Times in 2018, Lowe called his performance a "huge mistake", but admitted that he has benefited from the infamy.
"I, for sure, have gotten more money and acclaim out of being in that Oscar opening number than if I had won an Oscar," he said.
For Carr, though, the nightmare continued. The Walt Disney Company sued the Oscars for copyright infringement. It turns out, the Academy Awards hadn't asked for permission to use the character of Snow White in their show.
AND THEN CAME THE LETTER
Posted directly to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body that regulates and puts on the Oscars, the open letter was signed by 17 stars including Julie Andrews, Blake Edwards, Paul Newman, Sidney Lumet and Gregory Peck.
"The 61st Academy Awards show was an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry," it read.
"It is neither fitting nor acceptable that the best work in motion pictures be acknowledged in such a demeaning fashion.
"We urge the president and governors of the Academy to ensure that future awards presentations reflect the same standard of excellence as that set by the films and filmmakers they honour."
That was the nail in the coffin for Carr. Even though ratings for the 61st Academy Awards were up by a significant amount from previous years, he was never asked back to produce another show and died 10 years later.
After receiving that open letter, the Academy called in an investigatory committee to look at what exactly went wrong at the 1989 Oscars. The committee's suggestion on how to avoid such a calamity in the future? Hire a host.
DID ANYTHING GOOD COME OF IT?
The sad thing is that Carr made some major changes to the ceremony that are still in place today. For one thing, the man introduced the concept of a red carpet segment to the televised program, allowing those watching at home to see their favourite stars in their finest glad rags entering the ceremony.
Carr is also the man who advised the Academy Awards to change up their most important wording. Before him, awards were handed out by saying, "And the winner is". But thanks to Carr, the phrase, "And the Oscar goes to" was debuted into common parlance and is still said in every ceremony today.
You can expect those words to be uttered on stage several times on February 25 at the 2019 Oscars. You can also expect a glittering red carpet pre-show, with all your favourite stars from Emma Stone to Lady Gaga making grand entrances.
And, like the 1989 Oscars, the 2019 ceremony is also lacking a host and has a desire to ensure that the opening number makes up for that missing piece of the puzzle.
Can we expect an opening number as lumberingly overwrought as the duet between Rob Lowe and Snow White?
Only time will tell.
- Continue the conversation with Hannah-Rose Yee on Twitter @hannahroserose